Weeks after a massive train derailment in Ohio resulted in a fiery wreck and the release of hazardous chemicals, fingers are being pointed to and from the Department of Transportation.
At issue is whether work and safety standards are up to snuff, and whether cost-cutting measures could be to blame for the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, and others that have also taken place this year.
“Profit and expediency must never outweigh the safety of the American people,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement issued Tuesday morning. “We at USDOT are doing everything in our power to improve rail safety, and we insist that the rail industry do the same – while inviting Congress to work with us to raise the bar.”
Buttigieg’s statement accompanied an announcement from the DOT calling for “a three-pronged push to hold the freight rail industry accountable and improve safety.” This includes adopting the use of safer tank cars, new inspection technologies, protection for workers who report unsafe conditions, and congressional action to impose stiffer penalties for violations.
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The secretary recently sent a letter to the CEO of Norfolk Southern, which operated the train that derailed in Ohio, accusing the industry of trying to impede government efforts to impose stricter safety requirements.
“Rather than support these efforts to improve rail safety, Norfolk Southern and other rail companies spent millions of dollars in the courts and lobbying members of Congress to oppose common-sense safety regulations, stopping some entirely and reducing the scope of others,” Buttigieg wrote.
The DOT’s announcement comes days after Republican senators sent Buttigieg a letter questioning whether the 150-car Norfolk Southern freight train was sufficiently staffed and whether Biden administration policies may have contributed to the situation.
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“Current and former rail workers, industry observers, and reform advocates have pointed to precision-scheduled railroading (PSR), by which rail companies such as Norfolk Southern increase efficiency and drive down costs by moving more freight with fewer workers, as a potential contributor to the accident,” the letter from Sens. JD Vance, R-Ohio, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said. “We have voiced concerns with PSR, as well as with this administration’s prioritizing of efficiency over resilience in its national infrastructure and transportation systems.”
Rubio and Vance noted that the train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, had a three-member crew of a locomotive engineer, a conductor and a conductor trainee to manage the 150-car train. The letter said that according to security camera footage, there were “sparks or fire underneath at least one of the cars before the derailment” when the train was about 20 miles outside of East Palestine. They said that “a mechanical failure in one of the rail cars” may have been the cause of the derailment.
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The Republicans questioned whether two crew members and a trainee were enough to handle the 150-car train, and they noted that “derailments have reportedly increased in recent years, as has the rate of total accidents or safety-related incidents per track mile.”
Meanwhile, the measures that the DOT is now pushing would not require more workers than that. The department’s announcement cites the Biden administration’s push for the Train Crew Staffing Rule, which would only require most trains to have two crew members at a minimum.